Leaving Lola – Part 3: Unlocking, Remembering

Part 3 of 3, CLICK HERE to read Part 2

by Leonard

I was never able to hear stories from my Lola while I was growing up. And how could I? I was here. She was there. I didn’t get to go to the Philippines until I was 30 years old. By the time I did visit, we had so much catching up to do that I didn’t even get to ask her the hard questions. Like, how did you meet Lolo? What was my Mom like when she was a kid? A teenager? What was the worst thing she did? How did you feel when she left for Canada?

No question, however, could have prepared me for what I saw when the funeral procession rounded the corner into the cemetery.


“Come. Take a look here,” said Tito Tyrone, motioning me to follow him through the maze-like plot twists. “Say hello to your Lolo Leonardo,” pointing down the deep shaft inside the covered mausoleum.

“It’s deep,” was all I could think to say as I peered down into the darkness. “Because he wanted everyone to be buried there,” added my Tito as he left me alone there for a moment to go help lift Lola’s casket out of the hearse with the other men.

Looking down at my Lolo Leonardo’s casket wasn’t the shocking thing though. In fact, it was actually a special moment to be only feet away from someone who I’ll always wish I was closer to – even if he’s already dead. The thing that shocked me the most was that right there, above my Lolo’s name in brass lettering — was another name with a date of birth and date of death.

Nelson B. Punzalan — Born Feb. 16, 1943 – Died Feb. 18, 1952

My Lolo and Lola had another son. My mother had an older brother. When he died, he was only 9 years old.

Who was he? How did he die? My mother never mentioned that they had another brother that died. Lola never mentioned it either in the brief time that we got reacquianted. Seeing my Tito Nelson’s name above my Lolo’s was the first I had ever heard of him. And now, here he was — his name alone reminding me that there was still SO much that I had to talk to my Lola about, so much I still had to ask her — and now I would never get that chance to fill in all those missing blanks.

One day, I’ll ask my Mom about Tito Nelson but I have to be careful not to wait too long. When someone dies, their memories die with them if they are not shared. For now, I can only do my best to speculate based on what I know about history and the times.

Tito Nelson was born in 1943, which would have been during the War. The Bataan Death March was only one year before in 1942 and the Battle of Manila was two years later in 1945 – the year my mother was born. He died in 1952, when the Philippine economy was getting back on its feet, but was hampered by the Huk rebellion which enveloped areas like Laguna province in guerilla warfare.

Anyways, I’ll never know until I ask. Right?

I walked out to the rest of the gathering as final blessings were being given to my Lola. They were about to close the casket for the final time. Ready to catch my Mom and hold her in my arms, I couldn’t help but think how I would react if I were in her shoes. Honestly, I still can’t imagine. “Paalam, Inay,” said my Mom right before the casket closed. In Tagalog, it is “goodbye” — but not like “sige” in the “see ya later” sort of way. “Paalam” is more like “farewell” – to wish a final goodbye.


After the funeral, a few close family and friends gathered back at the house. “Can you give me your clothes?” asked Cousin Rommel. “Why?” I asked. I was about to jump in the shower anyway. “It’s bad luck to hang the clothes you wore to a funeral,” he answered. “It is said to bring another death to the family. It’s an old-folks tale.” Right. One more tradition for the road. Not being one to challenge the unknown, I handed Rommel my musty threads, hopped in the banyo and right back downstairs to entertain the guests.

My Mom’s first cousin Tita Noonie, brought Buko Pie from Collette’s. “Have you tried the famous Laguna Buko Pie?” she asked, not waiting for my reply as she plopped a huge piece on a plate for me. “No I haven’t yet,” I answered, even though I totally have tried it before.

“You can only get this here in the Philippines, so enjoy it. You don’t have this in Canada.”

And she was right. We don’t have Buko Pie in Canada. We don’t even have coconuts in Canada. Or mangoes, or langka. In Canada, I don’t have a million close relatives who are just a jeepney ride away. I don’t live in a town where my family history dates back to the turn of the century. We don’t live on land that is blessed with the blood, sweat and tears of generations of ancestors who tilled it. In Canada, there aren’t places that remind my Mom of her childhood. There are no sounds of roosters in the morning, no tuko lizards cooing at night. No tropical breeze and no sunset pastiche of pink, purple and orange. In Canada, we don’t have those things. And so we go to the Philippines to acquire them. To reclaim them. And to cure the amnesia.

And so that’s what this trip was about. Not only to say goodbye, but to realize that just because I grew up abroad doesn’t mean that I can’t be a part of my own family in the Philippines. It doesn’t mean that I can’t be rooted in this land even though I didn’t grow up on it – it’s my birthright. Being Canadian doesn’t mean that I can’t spend every day trying to become more Filipino – even if it does take my whole lifetime to do so. And being here today doesn’t mean that I can’t ask tons of questions about how it was to be there, then.

It took my Lola’s passing away to make me realize that we don’t have all the time in the world to find out all we want to know.

“You know, your Mom?” blurted Tita Noonie, snapping me out of my temporary stupor, “When she was small, she was always ‘tampo’!” “What is ‘tampo’?”, I asked Tita Noonie. She answered, “Ill-tempered. They say it’s because she was born during war-time.”

My Mom? Ill-tempered? Don’t I know it. Tita Noonie slapped her knee and quipped, “Did your Lola ever tell you about the time when your Mom was still small…” My eyes widened with excitement as I sat intently, waiting for the goods.

It might be too late to hear my Lola’s stories, but it’s never too late to start listening – because its out there if you listen for it. You just have to listen.

(P.S. — thanks for listening. – LC)


~ by Leonard on June 4, 2008.

One Response to “Leaving Lola – Part 3: Unlocking, Remembering”

  1. i love listening. always did.

    even though i didn’t go back home for a funeral.. i had the same thoughts. the two words that struck me over and over were “rootedness” (which probably isn’t a real word) and “home”. how can i place that only lives in my parents’ minds, have so much presence in my heart? born and raised very canadian, my first adult trip back home was the “calling” that so many of us talk about: that connection to something more than our lives in canada.

    my first trip home was when i was a mere 6-years-old in 1981 (yikes i’m old). my second and last trip was in 2004 for my brother francis’ wedding. i was 29 then, and unaware of what to expect. it’s kinda funny, but it was my brother’s wedding that brought me to the KPC really. while i was there i came face-to-face with my general ignorance, and was frustrated at my inability to communicate, and so upon my return i signed up for the KPC’s first series of tagalog classes. the rest is history. thanks to len, and my yearning to connect with my culture… i now am a proud part of the kpc.

    i think going home is a rite of passage. i think everyone needs to do it once. i like to think of it as our very own pilgrimage. hopefully it doesn’t take a loss to spur people to visit the homeland… but either way, it’s an eye-opening event.

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